8/6/2022 – It’s been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot in St. Mary’s Wilderness, located in the vast and spectacular George Washington National Forest. I’ve hiked and camped here before in the Spring and Fall however I’ve never hiked through in the heart of summer – for good reason. The trail on this hike is generally poorly maintained because it is a designated wilderness area. Pink ribbons tied to branches outline the trail and most easily visible during spring and winter when the trees are bare. I wanted to take my son and my brother to this area to beat the summer heat and swim in the cold spring waters and to get to the St. Mary’s waterfall – where there are deep pools and cliff jumping.
We arrived on Saturday morning at approximately 10:00am. The parking lot was full but we had no trouble finding parking on the side of the roads. The directions to the trail are very straight forward and the road is well maintained. The summer heat brought numerous visitors, all with towels and bathing suits ready to dip in the ice cold spring waters. The lush green vegetation blanketed everything including parts of the trail.
I realized early into the hike that we were not going to make it to the waterfall. There was heavy rain the days prior and everything was wet and it took plenty of time to navigate with my son. So we decided to just take it slow and enjoy the hike. He’s currently into mushroom identification, and he spent a good amount of time combing the forest floor. The butterflies were also in full force, so he marveled at the sight of dozens of them near the stream. He made hiking sticks with his trusty laplander folding saw. I let him pick one of the deeper pools to swim in as promised before the trip. He was thrilled at the idea of swimming in ice cold spring water.
After a much needed swim and some lunch. We slowly made our way back to the car. As we left, my son reassured me that we were coming back to get to the falls next time. He had an awesome time in St. Mary’s Wilderness.
For those that are interested in canoe camping, Philpott Lake in southwest Virginia just may be the best place to learn. This massive 3000 acre reservoir spans across three counties (Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties) and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (from 1948-1952) in order to help control flooding from the Smith River as well as generate hydroelectric energy and serve as a place for recreational activities.
We took to the road on a Thursday morning with clear, blue skies. It was an easy, and flat 3.5 hour drive from Richmond to the town of Bassett, Virginia. Upon arrival to the lake, we were impressed with how clean and organized the park seemed to be. We stopped by the visitor’s center to ask for some maps and it reminded of very much of a welcoming center you would see at an Ontario Provincial Park. There were stuffed animals on display, with fish species charts that covered the walls. From the visitor center, we were at a great vantage point and had a beautiful view of the Philpott Dam and Lake, sparkling blue in the sunlight. We were eager to paddle these waters.
We would be camping on Deer Island, a spot where visitors can visit if they wished to do some primitive camping. In order to get there, we got back in the car and drove to the Salthouse Branch Launch Point. Here we met a friendly ranger and paid our $20 per night camping fee. We reassured us, that if we would need anything at all throughout the night, that there would be a ranger on call 24/7. We parked the car right next to the beach and launch site and began unloading our gear. Once again, this is a very well kept lake, and the launch site had every facility we could have asked for, clean bathrooms and showers, picnic tables, and water fountains. We loaded our gear off a small dock next to the public beach and set out for the quick paddle to Deer Island (less than 0.5 miles). There wasn’t a single soul camping on Deer Island so we took our time circling the land until we found a suitable campsite…..#20. The campsite was immaculate without any signs of garbage. Once our camp was set up and the firewood had been cut, I went in for a refreshing dip.
While we were camping in Virginia, my brother Brian had been on a week long road trip up north in Manitoba, Canada. He was driving home to Virginia and would be joining us at Philpott Lake before we all head back to Richmond together. He was exhausted from spending days on the road. At midnight, we paddled back out under a full moon and cut through the fog on the water back to the Salt House Branch Landing. We helped him load his gear and we brought him back to the campsite. The orange glow of our campfire guiding us home.
Paddling through fog to the access point. (salt house branch)
He was tired and covered in camping scars, after run ins with poison ivy, black flies and mosquitos. He was certainly happy to be back in Virginia, where they were literally no mosquitoes at our campsite. We were not complaining but we were wondering why there were no bugs. I wonder if this is due to the fact that Philpott is a man-made lake. The elements that make a natural ecosystem where mosquitoes would thrive are not there. I have no idea, but we are not complaining. No need for a bug shelter or even bug spray for that matter.As we cooked him some dinner, he shared tales of his adventures up north, we listened intently by the fire and our group once again reunited. The last time the three of us were together was one year ago, when we paddled our way through La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve, in Quebec.
In the morning, we paddled out to the access point for a luxury shower at the Salt House Branch beach. This was truly glamping. The washrooms at Philpott Lake, just like everything else was very clean. This was something I could get use to on canoe camping trips. It turned out to be a very lazy day for us. Brian was exhausted from his road trip, so we took it easy and explored the surrounding forest. We made fires from pine sap, cooked and relaxed. No ambitious goals, just us and the lake. Before we knew it, the sun was coming down, and the forest was cooling off. We went on more night canoe paddles and explored the other launch sites. We met a friendly ranger and a police officer and spent some time talking to them. The ranger was clearly interested in our canoe camping ensemble and asked where we were from. Turns, out that he had been to Ontario…. many times. He hunted and fished in the backwoods of Ontario near and was very familiar with Algonquin Park. Small world.
In summary, Philpott Lake is a clean, beautiful, and fun place for anyone interested in primitive canoe camping. It is the perfect place to learn all of the motions involved in canoe camping. The short paddles to the campsites make it very feasible for all ages, and the access to clean facilities make it seem like clamping. There are rangers and campers around so there is also plenty of support. The rangers patrol throughout the night at the access points to keep everyone safe. On a scale of intensity, this experience fits in between car camping, and canoe back country camping… although much closer to car camping. I would love to come back to try our hand at fishing the famous Walleye populations in this lake, perhaps in the spring time.
*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.
Switzer (Skidmore) lake is one of my favorite places in Virginia. This sparkling, blue lake is located high up in the Virginia mountains of George Washington National Forest at over 2000 ft. The reservoir serves as the water supply for the city of Harrisonburg and is also stocked with brook trout. It is the perfect place to paddle in some of the clearest waters in Virginia.
My friend Min and I have not canoe camped since Quebec in the summer of 2016 and we were itching to get out there. We planned a simple overnighter, despite the impending rain that was forecast to hit hard on our second day. No matter. Rain does little to keep us indoors these days. My brother and I have survived torrential downpours in the backcountry of Ontario in Temagami and Algonquin Park. From these experiences, I’ve learned that the rain can actually bring many positives experiences to a camping trip. For one, there is always an awesome cloud display in the mountains afterwards. You are also presented with the opportunity to test the quality of your tarp setup in a situation that counts. Ray Mears once said if you wait for good weather to camp, you end up missing half the opportunities to get outside.
Our last trip to Switzer Lake was in the fall of 2015, where we spent a day exploring the lake and surrounding areas by foot and canoe. Two years later, I can say that the region has changed very little. The roads have received a marked upgrade. They have been flattened and well paved, even now very suitable for a sedan to navigate comfortably.
We head out on a weekday morning when we knew the campsites would be empty. This lake can be particularly busy during the weekend, so don’t expect peace and quiet. The area is frequented by numerous outdoor enthusiasts, mostly students from the nearby James Madison University campus.
Upon our arrival, we spent some time searching for a place to camp and settled in after an hour of searching. We got to work collecting dry, dead wood, setting up the tarp for impending rain, and fishing and exploring the area. One of the most useful pieces of cooking gear up north is the simple grill grate which can be easily rested between rocks so you can have steaks anywhere you go. Once our fires were hot enough and we created a large enough ember pile, we put on some steaks and corn and listened to the sounds of the forest as we ate. Perfect. The rain eventually did come at around 8:30pm, however it came in intermittent showers and we were more than prepared with our tarp and tent. The rain scared away the last kayaker on the lake so we had the whole area to ourselves.
While you might not get the true, backcountry canoe camping experience in Virginia, Switzer Lake comes pretty darn close. There are also many advantages to camping here versus the Canadian backcountry. First and foremost, the bug situation is infinitely better at this time of year. May and June are peak black fly and mosquito seasons in Ontario and make canoe camping pretty much unbearable without bug jackets. High up in these mountains, the bugs were scarce and we came out with hardly a scratch. We saw numerous frogs, butterflies, caterpillars and hawks. I also sleep a little easier in the Virginia woods knowing that the black bears are generally much smaller. Overall, this place offers a canoe camping experience that can certainly hold it’s own.
*A word of caution, to those interested in camping, I have heard of several who have received fines for camping immediately next to the lake. Apparently it is not allowed, however there are numerous campsites just a short walk deeper into the woods away from the lake. I would call the local forest office before planning a trip here to find out which camping sites are open to use.
*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.
Virginia offers a truly diverse landscape to camp. From the sandy beaches of the eastern shore and Chesapeake bay to the blue ridge mountains and highlands to the west. Without a doubt, one of favorite places to camp, is next to a gently flowing stream in the mountains. I was recently on my one week vacation and I knew that at least one of these days would be reserved for some camping. My friend Min and I originally planned on camping at Ramsey’s Draft in the George Washington National Forest however we were unable to find any suitable campsites near the entrance. Ramsey’s Draft is a beautiful wilderness area I have explored previously, where giant hemlock trees once towered by a wild trout stream. The only problem was the hike to Hiner Spring and the campsites was several miles. We planned this trip as a relaxed camping trip, with minimal hiking and mostly focused on just cooking and fishing. So, we cut our losses and booked it for St. Mary’s Wilderness, a place where I knew there would be excellent camp sites along a river bed. We left the canoe at home this time and trekked in the old fashioned way – on foot. The first day was perfect, warm, sunny and dry. It took us only about a half hour to hike in to the first campsite. It was a perfect site situated at the river’s bend and allowed us easy access to clean mountain waters.
One of the most exciting parts of camping in my opinion is setting up basecamp. There are numerous factors that go in to creating a comfy home in the woods, albeit just a temporary one. The heart of the campsite, the fire pit is the most important part. Building a structurally sound pit that allows for cooking and efficient heat dispersion is a skill that I still build upon. Always remember to take in account, the wind direction, the location of your tent in respect to the fire pit as well as position of your seats around the fire so you are not downwind of the smoke. Finding a suitable location of your tent is also important. Flat ground can be difficult to find in the forest. It is never a pleasant way to sleep when you are sliding down an incline in your tent. Sometimes, you’ll also have to clear a suitable grid, void of sharp rocks, sticks that may damage your tent. Also keep it out of the way of any standing, dead trees that could potential topple in a heavy storm. The pathway to water is one that has to be safely mapped so it can be accessed at all hours. Access to firewood is also important and Min loves collecting and processing firewood, it is something he takes great pride in. A folding saw, and axe are two crucial camp tools that allow a members to live comfortably. It gives you the ability to topple dead standing trees, and also quickly prepare a stack of firewood to last days.
workhorse of a tent
After developing a strong base of embers from the fire, we stabilized the portable grill into the fire pit and cooked up some delicious steaks. It cooked perfectly, and we served it with some baked potatoes. As the darkness set it, we threw more wood on the fire and spent the night chilling and catching up about our jobs, families and friends. In the middle of fall, I was surprised to say it felt comfortable in St. Mary’s Wilderness. We were in short sleeve shirts in the middle of the night. Camping in the valley provided us with protection from the wind and we were sitting in low 60s F weather.
Trangia alcohol stove
We slept well that night, however awoke to rain starting at 6:00am. It continued as an autumn shower without any signs of stopping. We packed up our gear and decided to head home. It had been a long time since i had been caught out in the rain, camping in Virginia and although it can be a pain, there is certainly a beauty to it. All around us, we could hear the drops, beating on trees and plants, as leaves drifted in the forest all around. The river beds were fast to fill, especially since we were in the valley. The water was teeming with wildlife, brook trout, frogs, and countless crawfish made their appearance. The rain seemed to awaken the forest. Just goes to show you that if you only camp when the weather is nice, you’re missing half of what’s out there.
It was a particularly hot summer weekend in Charlottesville, with highs greater than 100 degrees F. We were on a getaway from Richmond and despite the heat, we somehow wanted to squeeze in a quick hike in Shenandoah National Park. During this time of year, the popular watering holes like White Oak Canyon, are packed, so we decided it was time to find a new trail.
In the heat and humidity, we had to be conservative with what we hoped to accomplish. Naturally, we chose the easiest hike in the park: Blackrock Summit, a quick 1 mile loop around the mountain and back. This was more of a walk than a hike. The elevation was minimal and the trail very well maintained. Despite the ease of the hike, the vistas were awesome. Climbing upon the rock bed at the top allowed a full 360 degree view of the park and surroundings. The formation of the rocks at the top were certainly unusual and even appeared out of place. With the help of some trail signs, we were able to learn that this was once the floor of the ancient Iapetus Ocean that predates the Appalachian Mountains. Over time, geological forces transformed the seabed into solid quartzite rocks. Overtime, this region too will become overgrown with vegetation and will look like the surrounding mountains.
We reached the top in the early morning and descended the mountain just as the sun reached it’s peak. We sought refuge in the canopy of the forest where it was at least 10 degrees cooler. We searched for mushrooms and marveled at the lush forest in the peak summer time. It had been too long since my last visit to Shenandoah National Park, this outing reminded that she always has something special to offer in every season.
When presented with free time and the opportunity to explore arises, it can be difficult to decide where to go. The number of destinations seem endless with each place offering something completely different: the Blue Ridge mountains to the west, the coastal tidewater to the east and the Appalachian plateau to the Southwest. I usually end up letting the season and conditions deciding for me. What better place to explore in early Spring than the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area in the Blue Ridge? I read numerous reviews about the area of its beauty and clear river beds. St. Mary’s is designated a wilderness area, and as such, the trails are poorly marked. It appeared that summer hikers frequently got lost on the poorly marked trails and overgrown brush. I hoped to avoid all of this by navigating in early spring, with bare trees and clearer paths.
St. Mary’s Falls
Pink ribbon marked the trail
My cousin from Toronto accompanied me on this outing, marking his first proper hike in Virginia. When we arrived to the trail head, I was surprised to find that the earth was scorched and the trees charred. I later learned that a wildfire just two weeks prior had burned over 800 acres of the wilderness area. St Mary’s spans over 35,000 acres making it the largest Virgina Wilderness area on national forest land. The region was previously a mining ore for manganese and iron until it was abandoned in the mid 1900s. Today it serves as a beautiful hiking and fly fishing trail along the St Mary’s River, complete with a beautiful waterfall at the end.
Making a dry crossing
There are numerous routes to get to the waterfall. The most popular route listed on Hikingupwards.com recommended starting out along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One reviewer discouraged this path, because it was poorly marked and he took numerous detours after getting lost. They recommended an easier way to get to the falls. Off of Cold Springs Rd (Route 608) is St Marys Road. This road is in excellent shape and leads you all the way down to a well kept parking area and the beginning of the trail that puts you right next to St Marys River. From there, you simply follow the river to the falls. Internet win.
The hike twists and turns through a beautiful gorge, providing a unique vista in Virginia. There was lots of rock hopping, and scaling as the trail crossed back and forth over the river five times. We tried our hand also at some Tenkara (traditional Japanese fly fishing). This style of fly fishing uses only a rod, line and fly – no reel. With flask in hand with some Nordic honey wine and packed lunches, we enjoyed the peace of spring time in the mountains.
The leaves drifting from the trees in the Virginia mountains, signal the end to another canoe camping season. Min and I decided to go for one final run. It was unusually warm at Lake Moomaw up in the George Washington National Forest with temperatures in the 70s F during the day. It was a quiet couple of days with very little activity on the lake, and as usual we were the only paddlers on the lake. We had our pick of many campsites and enjoyed the peace and quiet. The only the sounds were from of shedding foliage, owls and birds of all types.
Wetterlings Hunter’s Axe
Japanese Single Malt
After setting up camp, we set out to gather firewood. One of the things I like most about Virginia camping is the abundance of firewood in these deciduous forests. There were countless fallen frees in the area that were nice and dry. The area also appears to be lightly camped and as such we did not have to look far to find what we needed. The Wetterlings Hunter’s axe with it’s wider wedge, made for light work of splitting in combination with my Ray Bears bucksaw. It was also a great opportunity to put my Finnish blade the “Enzo trapper” to use. It is a full tang work horse and can easily baton through wood to make kindling and is sharp enough to produce fine feathersticks.
We enjoyed some Japanese whiskey and took in the autumn beauty, Min even had some luck fishing off the coast. Of all the wildlife we heard, I was most surprised to hear the distinct cry of a couple of loons. Initially I thought my ears had deceived me – I didn’t think loons were this far south? However upon further research, it appears that many of them migrate south during this time of the year along the east coast and through Virginia.
Min and his trophy
Min was nice enough to prepare all of the meals for the trip. We ate some delicious chicken breasts with rice and beans for dinner. Min actually pre-cooked the chicken so all we had to do was heat it with the rice in the cooking pot. There’s nothing quite like a warm meal on a chilly night by the campfire. We ate under the stars with breathtaking visibility. The photos I took on this trip are from a sony a6000 that I’m still learning to use. In the morning for breakfast, we had egg white omelettes with green peppers and onions. Cooking with the Trangia alcohol stove is incredibly easy and has reduced preparation time drastically.
heating the embers
reflector oven in action
The stove weighs practically nothing and the fuel burns efficiently. We used to cook by campfire however soon learned that cleaning the soot off pots and pans took way too much time, not to mention the constant tending to the fire to assure a steady heat. The Svante Freden reflector oven from Sweden is also a must on canoe camping trips. It has been a trusty companion and we used it to to prepare some hot cornbread using a recipe courtesy of Ralph in Ottawa, Canada (much appreciated!).
bacon, eggwhites, green peppers and onions
To me, Lake Moomaw holds the title of a true Virginia gem. While there are several campsites in Virginia with lakes, only here can you get the backcountry experience of paddling to your site and setting up camp, far away from others. I can now say that I’ve camped here in 3 of the 4 seasons, spring, summer and now fall. Fall just might be my favorite. Great way to end the season.
On the border of Virginia and West Virginia, at 2362 ft above sea level, lies the beautiful, Switzer Lake (aka Skidmore Dam, Skidmore Lake). The 118 acre lake serves as a water supply reservoir to the town of Harrisonburg, Virginia and watershed for the George Washington National Forest. When I heard that the lake did not allow gas motorboats, I wanted to go to check it out. We had actually planned for an overnighter but decided against it when the temperatures dropped.
It was significantly cooler in the mountains at approx 45F. We also forgot to load our food cooler in the car….. a small detail. Nevertheless we made the most of the situation. We met some nice folks from Louisiana who gave us their stack of fire wood after exchanging camping stories and canoe trips. We made a huge fire and heated some naan on the stones. It was a windy but beautiful day with the leaves at near-peak colors and the clear lake, sparkled in the sun.
For those who plan to camp here, Switzer Dam appears to be a much more popular camping location than Lake Moomaw (located in Bath County) due to the ease of access to the campsites, most of which are drive-in camp spots. The lake is also only 30 minutes away from James Madison University, and is a popular place to hang out. The lake is stocked with brook trout and the surrounding rivers and streams in the area also have healthy populations to fish.
I have heard conflicting stories about whether camping is allowed immediately next to the lake. I think the best way to find out is to call ahead and ask which areas are permitted. There are several campsites situated in the forest, just a tad farther from the lake that appear to be safe spots to camp.
Since this is not an official camp ground, Lake Switzer doesn’t have the benefits of regular site maintenance. So it’s up to us to keep this place clean. It kills me when I find beer cans, tin foil, fishing line etc at campsites. Remember to pack out whatever you bring in!
Nestled deep in the George Washington National Forest, Lake Moomaw is a gem very few paddlers know about. The lake is formed by the Gathright Dam on the Jackson River. With many areas of the lake reaching depths of over 100ft, it provides a cooler habitat for trout to thrive….an angler’s paradise. On a rainy friday, we made our way to the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program on the Monroe Park Campus. Canoes can be rented on Friday and kept over the weekend for only $20. We picked up two of them and set out on a Saturday morning in April of 2014 to paddle the turquoise waters. It was a particularly windy day and we battled the current. The scenery was not one we expected in Virginia, it was actually more similar to the northern states and Canada. Simply a beautiful place. We will definitely be returning.